The situation in Tripoli remains fluid, as President Obama recently noted, but the collapse of Col. Moammar Qaddafi’s brutal regime is imminent. The rebels are now trying to secure Tripoli, and forces loyal to Qaddafi may resist. But their numbers are not likely to be strong enough to reverse the expected outcome. World leaders are responding with statements in support of the Libyan people and calls for Qaddafi to end the bloodshed once and for all. Success on the ground ultimately goes to the Libyan people despite NATO’s critical support, but Libyans will likely require significant additional and ongoing support from the international community if they are to legitimately turn the page on history.
Popular support for the rebels is undeniable, with more than 80 percent of the city under rebel control. Regardless, Qaddafi’s departure is likely to result in a level of chaos for some time, particularly as the Transitional National Council, or TNC, the recognized Libyan opposition, a group comprised of Qaddafi regime defectors and dissidents living abroad, moves to the helm of government. It is also inevitable that Tripoli’s fall will bring with it a host of new challenges and questions, including how the international community can best contribute to and support this new era in Libya’s history. Below we attempt to address these challenges as well as the issues the TNC is likely to confront.
Immediate next steps for the TNC
First, the TNC, working closely with critical international partners, must quickly expand its presence to all of Libya and ensure it is clearly representing all Libyans—including the Qaddafi loyalists it was previously fighting.
Second, a range of threats to Libya’s stability are likely to emerge once Qaddafi officially steps down. Maintaining public order and averting looting, general violence, and vengeful reprisals will require a well-articulated stabilization plan from the TNC and genuine discipline from local commanders. If the period immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein taught us anything, it is that a complete disbanding of the military is likely to contribute to a climate of insecurity and chaos.
There are, however, positive signs that the TNC is well aware of this mistake and has already done some hard thinking to avoid such a fate. Indeed, a recently leaked TNC transition plan recognizes the need to “avoid an Iraq-style collapse into anarchy” and claims that a number of security officials serving in Qaddafi’s forces were already recruited covertly and are being vetted to form the “backbone” of a new security apparatus.
This may be a step in the right direction. But given how controversial it’s also likely to be, interim Libyan authorities should also consider a robust international peacekeeping force that could help maintain security and reverse the potential for reprisal killings and retributive attacks.
Finally, the TNC should immediately turn over Qaddafi and others senior regime officials indicted by the International Criminal Court, or ICC. In principle the court remains an option of last resort. But after four decades of authoritarian rule Libya’s judiciary is not likely to be able to adjudicate such an important trial. And while the ICC appropriately recognizes the potential for a trial to be held in Libya, the possibility that such a trial could ignite violence must also be considered. Locally led reconciliation efforts will be an important complement to the ICC’s senior-level prosecutions while also enabling a broad swath of Libyan society to engage in transitional justice indicatives.
Ensuring political unity in the TNC is crucial
Looking ahead, the lack of coherence within the opposition is an increasing concern. Existing fissures could worsen and deepen the expected post-Qaddafi fragility, especially given the disastrous state of the country’s economy and the absence of any knowledgeable civil society.
Accordingly, the TNC should clearly articulate its governance strategy for the post-Qaddafi phase and begin a consultative process to avoid political jockeying and significant fragmentation. It will need to determine right away how best to include appropriate representations from areas such as Tripoli that have just come under TNC control. Regular communication with the general public will be essential to build popular support. Without such an effort, competition for power could develop quickly and reverse any security gains.
In addition, the interim constitution drafted by the TNC earlier this year is an important political tool that should be widely circulated throughout the country and with key allies. This transitional document lays out important foundational principles that will help the country define its particular version of political pluralism.
The draft document defines Libya as "an independent democratic state wherein the people are the source of authorities" and supports the important norm of inclusivity by recognizing the country’s diversity. Indeed, it makes an important statement in support of minority rights by recognizing the Berbers, a group brutally repressed under Qaddafi.
Creating impartial and sustainable governance institutions must be part of any postconflict process the TNC undertakes, and it will likely require the support of outside actors. Such assistance will be essential if we are to help move Libya’s economy back from the edge and to contribute to its own reconstruction. The United Nations and the United States both have deep postconflict expertise and can make important contributions to the transitional process. Norway also has a long history of helping developing countries manage their natural resources in a transparent and accountable manner. Such an initiative could contribute to a management plan for the oil and gas sectors and to rebuilding critical infrastructure.
Finally, many of Libya’s institutions are in poor condition, and Libyans also should be wary of rushing toward an election without having the conditions for successful democracy in place.
The administration’s contribution
To this end, the Obama administration should marshal experts both in and out of government to prepare for supporting a plan that recognizes Libya’s complicated history, regional dynamics, disparate local voices, and the inevitable need for accountability and reconciliation. Virtually no useful models exist within the region. But there is certainly no shortage of expertise from past authoritarian transitions, including in the Balkans, East Timor, and Liberia.
The Obama administration’s initial response to Libya seemed poorly coordinated and messy. His administration, however, was able to get back on its feet quickly and craft a strong multilateral response that was smart, balanced, and pragmatic given our many domestic priorities. The administration has been clear to the American public and to our allies that Libya needs to be a shared effort, and this will be as true after the conflict as it was during.
Going forward, the United States must once again balance domestic and international priorities in order to remain engaged not just with the interim Libyan authorities but also with the nascent civil society groups and the Libyan people themselves. Recent statements from the White House illustrate a strong commitment to doing so on all fronts.
This is a smart move that can be made even smarter by adding in the one piece that was previously missing: pro-active consultations with Congress. Given the remarkable bipartisan support for continued U.S. engagement in Libya, the door is wide open to rise above partisan bickering and craft an approach that enables us to get our postintervention plan right. We literally can’t afford to do it any other way.
Sarah Margon is the Associate Director for Sustainable Security at American Progress.